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How to lead a d-group (according to the Apostle Paul)

A few weeks ago we looked at “How to have a one-on-one (according to the Apostle Paul).”

This week we tackle another crucial aspect of college ministry: the discipleship group.

Discipleship groups in scripture

Though “discipleship groups” aren’t explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures, evidence of their existence is everywhere.

Obviously, Jesus and His twelve men stand as a prime example, but Paul had several similar relationships.

For example, as the book of Acts progresses, the use of the plural pronouns increases. Less I, he, and she, and more us and we. This indicates that at least Luke and the others mentioned were with Paul on his missionary journeys.

His trips to prison with Silas and/or Timothy, his travels to the churches, and his confrontations with city officials often took place with a group of his disciples around him. The principle is clear: Paul had his men with him.

But consider the numerous churches Paul planted. As American readers of the Bible we likely have a skewed view of these churches.

I tend to see a small church meeting in a building. But all of the churches Paul planted met in houses, not separate buildings. This is true of all churches in the first three centuries (Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary for the New Testament on Acts 12:12).

Neither were these homes at the end of a cul-de-sac in an American suburb. Some of these houses were large, but others met in apartment-like buildings where the number of people fluctuated with the location.

Our understanding of these churches Paul wrote to needs correction.

Discipleship groups today

Do these home meetings sound familiar? Do any of your discipleship groups meet in your living room?

Though there aren’t perfect parallels, there are transferable principles here that address how we lead a small group of people.

In the last article we looked at Paul’s letter to an individual. Now let’s look at his letter to the church at Thessalonica.

Paul’s leadership style and method

Let’s start with some general observations about Paul’s leadership of the Thessalonian church.

  1. Everyone needs the Gospel
    • He recognizes that people are in different places, but he applies the gospel to each of them (1 Thess. 5:14 & 2 Thess. 3:6-15).
  2. Everyone is Unique
    • He gives leadership based on the reports/observations he received (1 Thess. 3:6-13; 5:15-22). Paul doesn’t simply show up and start talking. He doesn’t have templated, rehearsed words. Without compromising truth, he let’s his leadership be shaped by the needs of the people.

This approach is the foundation for Paul’s leadership style. If you remember from the last article, this is the same way he leads individuals. Gathering information about who a person is gives them a job and applies the gospel to their current situation.

Gospel-shaped life and words

  1. Gospel-Shaped Life
    • Paul repeatedly stresses the importance of his example among the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:5-7; 2:7-12, 17; 2 Thess. 3:6-9). He is pointing out how the gospel has shaped his life and is instructing the Thessalonians to remember his life.
    • He modeled a life of holiness that pleased God (2:11-12; 4:1-8). Paul was not simply attempting to gather a group with flattering words. He modeled holiness and lived gently among the Thessalonians (2:7-8).
  2. Gospel-Shaped Words
    • Paul was careful with words. He avoided flattery, choosing instead to encourage the group of Thessalonians and affirm their strengths as a church (1:3-5). These words are possible when you no longer live for the approval of the group (2:3-6).
    • Paul also used words to declare the gospel with power (1:4-7; 2:13). This is the primary responsibility of the disciple-maker: sharing gospel truth through loving words in the context of everyday life.


  1. Direction and Affection
    • It is hard to read these verses and miss this. If we want to lead like Paul, we must recognize that discipleship is a combination of direction and affection. We must give directional leadership to our people in the context of affectionate relationships.
  2. All of life is about relationships
    • Without relationships with other people our lives would be pretty boring and our Christian growth would stall. Groups in discipleship are our best opportunities to have real, biblical community. We get to enjoy fellowship with other believers, practice accountability, and pray together. We get to practice all of the “one anothers” of Scripture in our discipleship groups.
  3. Applying Paul’s Method
    • Each group’s direction must be based on the collected observations of our disciples. (For more info on this, see the previous article on one-on-one’s). Each week’s plan should be sensitive to the needs of your people.

In the next article, we’ll look at Paul’s theology, philosophy, and methodology for ministry. Until then, may our discipleship groups be gospel-shaped like Paul’s.